The runic alphabet used by the people of northwestern Europe for over a thousand years contain two great mysteries.
The first is its origin. Was this distinctive set of jagged symbols based on the Latin alphabet or some other ancient script? The second is a strange linguistic development, considered by experts to be unique in the history of world languages - and explored in the puzzle below.
Runes were used to write Old Norse and Old English, languages of the Germanic peoples who lived in northwestern Europe in the first millennium. Originally there were 24 runes. But in the 8th century in Scandinavia, around the beginning of the Viking Age, something strange happened. Some of the runes disappeared – the total number suddenly dropped by a third.
“Around 700 AD, Old Norse gets more sounds, but the number of runes is reduced to 16. As far as I know, no other system in the world has done this. In England, where the Anglo-Saxon runes were used for Old English, they introduced new runic letters for new sounds,” says Henrik Williams, professor of runology at Uppsala University in Sweden. “This is the biggest question in runology: why do Did Vikings go from 24 to 16?”
Runes are an instantly recognizable set of symbols with long vertical lines and angled branches. The most common theory for the origin of this general shape is that the symbols were originally carved into wood, where it is best to carve in the direction of the grain so that the lines become more visible. They are thought to be descended from the Latin alphabet or one of the other related alphabets that were used in southern Europe two millennia ago.
The oldest known runic inscription dates from the middle of the 2nd century, in southern Denmark, on an antler bone comb. The 24 rune alphabet used in this inscription, and for the next 600 years, is known as the Elder Futhark, as the first six runes represent the sounds “f”, “u”, “th”, “a” , “r”. and “k”. Only a few hundred Elder Futhark inscriptions survive, spread across England, Poland, and Germany, in addition to Scandinavia.
Elder Futhark is the ancestor of the Anglo-Saxon runes, as well as the 16 rune alphabet used by the Vikings, which is called Younger Futhark. Only about 100 Anglo-Saxon inscriptions survive, but there are about 6,000 from Younger Futhark – about half in Sweden and about half carved in stone. Most runic inscriptions are short sentences that say who raised the stone and other administrative details: the place, a prayer, the name of the sculptor.
“If you were to put everything that was written in runes before the 16th century into a book, the book would be no more than 50 pages,” Williams says. “The Vikings did not write literature in runes. They used it for more practical purposes.
Runes fell into disuse in most places by the 12th century with the Christianization of Scandinavia, although in more remote places their use continued. The last known authentic runic inscription was made in the 15th century on Gotland, an island in the Baltic Sea.
“When Sweden was Christianized, it was Latinized. Runes had no place in learned society,” says Williams. “I think people have become less literate because they haven’t learned to write in their own language.
“In Europe, once Latin arrives, it kills the indigenous culture. The runes are unique and very exciting because it is an example of indigenous culture,” he adds. “Runes developed orally. Reading the runes gives you insight into the oral culture of ancient Scandinavia.